Book Review

The Once and Future King by T. H. White

astounded by the brilliance of this mid-20th century arthurian novel

cw: incest, animal cruelty discussed as plot points

1. The Sword in the Stone

June 9th, Tottenham

The second big book I selected to read when I arrived in the UK, following on from Tariq Ali’s Winston Churchill biog, was what is possibly the last “classic British Children’s Fiction” that I’ve never read.

The Once and Future King is the novelist T. H. White’s magnum opus, a soaring, acclaimed set of four books (with an extra one – I’m pretty sure – that is much darker, possibly posthumous and not included in this handsome 1965 hardback) about the life of fictional British Christ-figure, King Arthur Pendragon.

This post may seem disjointed, and I will likely contradict myself with facts of the books’ content and contexts, as I am going to add a paragraph or two as I read through the four novels contained within this one volume.

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For a 200 page story titled The Sword in the Stone, there is very little sword and very little stone – the myth of the “true king of England” being able to unsheathe a rock-bound weapon isn’t mentioned until about 15 pages from the end. This means that this first part of White’s book very much contains an absence of King Arthuryness, as there is only a King Arthur for about half of the final page…

Merlyn (White’s spelling) is there throughout, as too – unexpectedly for me – is Robin Hood, Little John, Maid Marian and many other knights and magical creatures who likely have a similar place in historic British/English folklore.

This book is very similar to the 1963 Disney movie of the same name, though with a few key differences – young Arthur (referred to by almost everyone (including the narrator!) as “the Wart”) gets on very well with his foster brother and father (Sir Kay & Sir Ector) and – my key childhood memory of the film – there’s no wildly horny squirrel who desperately tries to bang the transformed Arthur as a squirrel. 

There are numerous – often too lengthy – sections during which Merlyn turns his Arthur into animals (a goose, a fish, a hawk, a badger) and these are the main parts of what Merlyn describes as “the Wart’s education”. Reading The Sword in the Stone presuming it would function as a “standalone” novel that was added to afterwards, I was waiting for Arthur’s education to become narratively relevant, i.e. the knowledge Arthur gained as a goose saving him as a king, but this doesn’t happen. What I hope this means, then, is that there is this kind of narrative connectivity thru the remaining three (4?) books of The Once and Future King, but who knows? I don’t.

I’m going to sit for a bit and Google T. H. White, then take Cubby for a walk outside.

2. The Queen of Air and Darkness

June 10th, Tottenham

This one was half the size of the first, and – apparently – much slimmed down in this compendium volume compared to its 1939 individual release.

This one explores the non-Arthurian British folks looking to topple his new kingdom and challenge his burgeoning authority, which they fail to do.

Arthur unites the archipelago and establishes his new chivalric order, the Round Table, which will reward justice and honour rather than the brute force which had previously been central to controlling Gramarye, the name White gives to this fictional England.

There is also a lot of animal cruelty here – the first chapter includes a witch boiling a cat to death, there is a section where children murder and – badly – butcher a unicorn, and there is also the description of a love spell at the end of the story that involves peeling off a ribbon of human skin from a corpse.

This love spell is then used by Arthur’s hot half sister (tho no one other than Merlyn and the reader knows they are related) who fucks her brother and gets pregnant. The book ends with the promise of an incest baby (Mordred) on the way and the looming threat of Arthur’s eventual demise.

It’s great! Cracking straight on!

3. The Ill-Made Knight

June 12th, Tottenham

This, the third book, was the last to be published as its own original novel, before White started holding back until he could make the four-book, one volume version that I am reading from. 

The Ill-Made Knight is the part of this Arthurian epic all about Lancelot, from his youth as a wannabe knight, through to his numerous quests undertaken as an aggressive distraction from his growing – and very much requited – desire for Guinevere, the Queen and wife of his boss/mentor/idol/best friend, King Arthur.

White’s depiction of Lancelot and Guinevere’s love is surprisingly (well, I was surprised) mature and nuanced.

White evokes very clearly their mutual desire and the ways in which it contradicts and negatively impacts their personal self-images.

How can Lancelot be the perfect knight if he is fucking another man’s wife, an act of treason given the circumstances?

There is the complication, too, of Elaine, a young woman who tricks the then-virginal Lancelot into fucking her (when he thinks he is finally relenting and shagging the love of his life) who gets pregnant and gives birth to Galahad, a knight even more pure and holy and devout than his father, the only one of the Round Table who is (later) able to ascend into whatever realm holds the Holy Grail without being called back to earth.

Elaine pines for and schemes about winning Lancelot, a man she barely knows and fails to understand over and over again. A while after her son’s failure to return from his Indiana Jones-inspired final quest, Elaine kills herself when she eventually realises that the world’s greatest knight will never truly love her. This, too, is handled movingly and unpretentiously.

This section of the big novel is very much written for adults: it is about love and desire and personhood, about the sacrifices made for ambition and the regrets that inevitably stack up as a person walks through the world.

It is not possible to be perfect.

We, as humans, cannot hold ourselves to impossible standards. Even our mythical heroes must be imperfect, because otherwise they are unrelateable.

Quests, jousts, magic, postmodern references to Thomas Malory and “fictional” kings who were kings irl aside, this is a genuinely powerful book exploring big fucking themes, the sex and the love and the death and the desire that are the things we need to live, y’know?

Fucking incredible. On to the next!

4. The Candle in the Wind

June 13th

The final part of The Once and Future King is a short one, at only a little over a hundred pages, and tho it was originally written in the early forties along with the previous four books, White published if for the first time here, in 1958.

In this final section, although we don’t quite get to see the death of Arthur (though we do get to see a child Thomas Mallory – White’s stories are set hundreds of years later than those found in Le Morte D’Arthur), but we do see the destruction of his world and worldview, and the loss and death of all who he cares about.

Mordred, his nasty little incestbaby, becomes central, essentially becoming a fascist leader riling up the dickhead aristocracy to rise against Arthur.

Mordred forces a discussion of Lancelot and Guinevere’s relationship into the public eye and the law courts, which results in both being sentenced to death. Lancelot, of course, escapes and rescues the Queen (even though they’re all sixtyish (at least) by this point), with Mordred & Gawaine’s best brother (the un-excitingly named Gareth) dying in the melee, allegedly at Lancelot’s hands but almost certainly stabbed in the back by Mordred. With this death, reconciliation becomes impossible and civil war ensues, Mordred taking the opportunity to make a power grab while everyone else is fighting amongst themselves.

There isn’t really a clear resolution, White does not tell his reader how the situation ends, or what happens to the civil war. King Mordred is not a figure who resonates through cultural history, so we must presume that Arthur’s side comes out victorious, but it doesn’t matter much to Arthur just as it doesn’t matter much to the reader: the world, the society, that Arthur had tried to build has failed, has fallen apart.

By the end of his reign, Arthur has not excised violence and cruelty, and his attempts to funnel these impulses into “good works” (i.e. crusades, holy grail quests, righting perceived wrongs, jousting) have failed to change his Europe.

Writing during the Second World War, White knew intimately the failure of “democracy” and “liberalism” and how this allowed and ushered in fascism. In this 1958 version, he explicitly ties Mordred and his followers to anti-Semitism and genocide, which feels somehow both lazy but also resonant. These were – are – the same kinds of people with the same morally dead ideas, fascists from the medieval period, fascists from the 20th century and fascists from the present day all share so, so much.

Fascism and authoritarianism, whatever name it possesses, is the impulse to prize power and strength over compassion and care, the equation of might with right, of cruelty with clearheadedness, of being psychopathically emotionless with being practical, of-

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I didn’t know what to expect going into The Once and Future King, and after finishing the first part, The Sword in the Stone, I had a solid – and wrong – idea of what the rest of the book would be.

The long-term narrative threads promised by Merlyn in the first book – Arthur will use the lessons taught by animals in adulthood and Kay will die violently due to something he says – are not called back to here, but that doesn’t matter. The Sword in the Stone is a book about children, for children, while the rest of this text is a masterpiece about the realities of love, of sex, of politics, of power, of control. 

This is not a rose-tinted evocation of an edenic England that never existed, it is a magic realist depiction of the world we live in and the human forces that continue to try and shape it through greed and self-importance.

The Once and Future King is about proprietary laws overruling undeniable passion, about shame being demanded even when it isn’t felt; it is about the impossibility of perfection but the importance of pursuing it all the same.

The novel is allegory, it is essay, it is exciting and moving and serious and powerful and should really be read more than it is. I’ve never heard anyone mention this irl before – have you?

It’s one of the best things I’ve read it a long while.

Highly, highly fucking recommended.

Byeeeeee


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1 comment on “The Once and Future King by T. H. White

  1. Wow! This was *not *a novel I expected you to like (I obviously carry assumptions about you that are inaccurate – maybe I expect you to be “bad.” and only like gutter memoirs) But your careful, fair, and finally thrilled reading of it reminded me that, while I had just *loved *this book when I was a kid, and read it more than once, I *never *understood what was going on in the later parts. What I’m reading right now is Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL trilogy, and reading this, seeing how the maniacal intoxication of “Christianity” and “Monarchy” (blood made “royal” by whatever “God” is) determined the course of European history, and all that entails, I can’t help remembering Mordred. Mordred stalks us even now; Mordred never left. Another book I’ll have to re-read. I enjoy your reviews very much; keep at it.

    Liked by 1 person

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